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Latter-day Saint psychologist: Why I believe spirituality can help mental health

As a mental health professional whose desire is to help people with mental health concerns, I was dismayed by some of the feedback I received publicly and privately about a recent article of mine that was shared on LDS Living.

I have been writing articles on topics of mental health and the gospel for years, but unfortunately in my most recent article focusing on an expanded definition of repentance explained by President Nelson, some of the principles and beliefs that I have shared in the past about the importance of including spirituality as one of many resources in combating mental health challenges were not as clearly outlined. As such, I received many comments from some who viewed my message as harmful and inaccurate.

First, I would like to apologize. I never meant for my comments to be hurtful or to dredge up feelings of guilt or shame. As a psychologist, I have devoted my life’s work to helping those with mental illness develop strength and receive healing. Realizing that my words may have caused the opposite effect fills me with grief and sorrow. To those of you who have expressed anger or sadness at my article, please know that I have spent time reviewing your comments and criticisms and consider them seriously. I would like to address some of the concerns that were raised in an attempt to help alleviate any feelings of shame my article might have inadvertently caused and provide a measure of hope and clarification on some important things that might have been unclear or understated in the original article.

Many comments had a similar theme. People indicated how they have suffered with mental health issues for years and decades. They stated how there is a difference between periodic anxiety and depression and the clinical syndromes that are diagnosed in professional settings. They remarked how in cases of serious mental illness, spiritual approaches such as prayer and scripture study are not independently sufficient to manage these powerful maladies. They also commented on how there are times when biological and environmental forces combine so strongly to create emotional distress that change feels extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. I wholeheartedly agree with all of these observations.

But what I also hope to emphasize in my articles is that I am a strong believer in the Lord’s power to relieve suffering. This does not negate my concurrent belief in using the God-given blessings of modern science to seek healing. Just as I would expect someone with a long-term physical health condition to stay closely connected with competent physicians, follow their counsel to take prescribed medication, and maintain an appropriate diet, I would expect someone with a mental health illness such as Major Depressive Disorder to rely heavily on mental health professionals, engage in counseling, take medication as prescribed, and following other indicated recommendations. When I advise people add spiritual remedies to their quest for healing, I am not suggesting that 1) they should discontinue all other interventions, 2) spiritual remedies are more important or a “higher way” than scientific solutions, or 3) mental health issues are primarily caused by spiritual deficiencies. Let me assure you that I do not believe any of those things. Chronic mental health problems are complex, multidimensional challenges that require complex, multidimensional solutions.

I always try to suggest simple spiritual tasks that I believe will help provide some relief to mental health challenges. I do not believe such simple things will fully resolve mental health issues. In many cases, I don’t even believe that they will be a main ingredient in the final recipe for healing. But I do believe they are important. Those who suffer from chronic mental health challenges know that single solutions are hardly ever sufficient to provide ultimate relief. Medications help but are often insufficient without other supports. Counseling is beneficial but can be overwhelming without additional help. Environmental changes can be valuable but fade in power if internal long-term changes are not achieved. In short, multiple interventions used in concert with one another are typically the best way to fight mental health issues. I offer that spiritual solutions can be added to our personal arsenal in order to increase overall effectiveness of mental health treatment.

Most of us have experienced periodic depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. In many cases, the issues have been short-lived and are now gratefully in the past. However, there are some who are afflicted with serious, chronic, and at times debilitating feelings of sadness, hopelessness, fear, terror, and a host of other horrible emotions. These patterns are highly resistant to change and feel absolutely overwhelming. It can seem unfair that you are called to pass through such great challenges while others experience less grief. Truly it is impossible to compare grief, and we all go through personal sorrow, but I believe that some sufferings are objectively more intense than others. I don’t know why you have to experience what you do. I don’t know why Lehi was directed to a promised land while his prophet contemporary Jeremiah was required to stay in Jerusalem where he was imprisoned. I don’t know why the stripling warriors were spared because of their faith while the Ammonihah believers were burned alive for theirs. Some are required to go through more difficult experiences. But I do know that, at least in my own experience, my greatest difficulties have ultimately taught me my greatest lessons. And knowing that a loving, compassionate Father in Heaven loves everyone as much as He loves me, I believe that all of our challenges can be consecrated for our gain.

For anyone struggling with these challenges or who wants to help someone who is, I highly recommend you watch or read Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s October 2020 general conference address. He talks specifically about trials that last for an extended period of time. His message is one of hope and faith. Regarding trials that last for much longer than we’d prefer, he offers counsel of patience and trust:

There will be times in our lives when even our best spiritual effort and earnest, pleading prayers do not yield the victories for which we have yearned, whether that be regarding the large global matters or the small personal ones. So while we work and wait together for the answers to some of our prayers, I offer you my apostolic promise that they are heard and they are answered, though perhaps not at the time or in the way we wanted. But they are always answered at the time and in the way an omniscient and eternally compassionate parent should answer them.

I strongly encourage you to hold fast to this modern prophetic assurance during times of greatest distress and discouragement.

In a similar vein, some years ago President Nelson talked of the woman who had the issue of blood. She had spent more than a decade seeking remedies without success. She had spent her entire living on treatments that brought no relief. Some of you know exactly what that feels like. In what I believe can be best described as a case of “faithful desperation,” she found the Savior and reached out to touch His clothing. I imagine it was difficult to do, considering the many people who were there. In my mind’s eye, I see her stretching with all her might and even then just barely grasping the hem of his clothes. We know the result—she was healed. President Nelson talked about her experience, and how it can apply to others in such desperate circumstances: 

When you reach up for the Lord’s power in your life with the same intensity that a drowning person has when grasping and gasping for air, power from Jesus Christ will be yours. . . . When you spiritually stretch beyond anything you have ever done before, then His power will flow into you.

I fully acknowledge that I don’t know your specific situation. I’m sorry that some of the things I have written might have made you feel like you are the authors of your own suffering. I know you are struggling and the last thing you need is for someone to hand you another burden. However, I want you to know that I am firmly convinced of the Lord’s love for you. I know there is a personal plan for your redemption from the mental health issues that have plagued you for so long. I don’t know what that plan is, and your doctor or therapist or bishop probably doesn’t know what that plan is, but the Lord does. I believe He will reveal it to you, line upon line, in His due time. Quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons I so strongly promote getting closer to God as a means of helping with mental health issues. I think the more revelation we can receive, the more knowledge we gain, and the more clearly we can see our path to healing. That personalized path can be marked by all sorts of interventions, including clinical, medicinal, behavioral, and spiritual. Your path is yours alone. Others can provide helpful insights, but in truth, there is only One who has ever carried your specific grief and walked your painful path.

Alma taught the Nephite saints about the promised Messiah: 

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11–12, emphasis added). 

I recognize that only the Savior knows the full extent of your suffering, for He has experienced it on your behalf. Only He knows the most perfect way to help you achieve the peace and healing you so greatly desire. And I plead with you to do all in your power, stretching as far as you can, to reach Him and receive what He has to offer. God bless you with the strength and determination to do so.

Lead image from Getty Images
David morgan

Dr. David T. Morgan, Contributor

Dr. Morgan is the author of My God Hath Been My Support: Seven Keys to Understanding and Enduring Personal Trials and several other books that can be viewed here. His writings contain insights and solutions to apply gospel principles to emotional challenges. You can see more content, connect with him on social media, or ask questions on his website, www.ldspsychologist.com.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com